Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2005). When high-powered people fail - Working memory and ''choking under pressure'' in math. Psychological Science, 16(2), 101-105.
We examined the relation between pressure-induced performance decrements, or “choking under pressure,” in mathematical problem solving and individual differences in working memory capacity. In cognitively based academic skills such as math, pressure is thought to harm performance by reducing the working memory capacity available for skill execution. Results demonstrated that only individuals high in working memory capacity were harmed by performance pressure, and, furthermore, these skill decrements were limited to math problems with the highest demands on working memory capacity. These findings suggest that performance pressure harms individuals most qualified to succeed by consuming the working memory capacity that they rely on for their superior performance.
Little research has addressed the causal mechanisms by which high-stakes performance situations result in disappointing performances. Even less is known about the specific characteristics of individuals most likely to experience unwanted failure in such situations. In this study, the researchers set out to explore the cognitive processes that may govern ''choking under pressure”…especially in situations in which the desire for high-level performance is maximal.
The specific causal mechanism explored was working memory and the experimental situation was performance on mathematical problem solving under both low- and high-pressure conditions.
In general, the researchers found that:
- As expected, performance decrements were limited to problems that made the largest demands on working memory. Surprisingly, however, only the individuals high in working memory (HWM) capacity demonstrated these decrements. Interestingly, high-pressure situations completely eliminated the advantage that HWMs enjoyed over LWMs.
- It was hypothesized that high performance pressure consumes the extra working memory capacity that is used by HWM capacity individuals to solve the most difficult problems (those with high working memory demands). Individuals with LWM capacity performed less well on the high-demand problems in the absence of pressure, but when pressure was applied, LWM's disadvantage disappeared since their level of achievement did not decline under pressure.
- The hypothesized construct central to these findings is executive or controlled attention (see work of Engle, Kane and associates). Working memory is at heart the ability to focus attention on a central task and execute its required operations while inhibiting irrelevant information. Under normal conditions, HWMs tend to outperform LWMs because they have superior attentional allocation capacities. However, when such attentional capacity is compromised, HWMs' advantage disappears. According to the researchers, “the idea that pressure specifically targets individuals who have high working memory capacity carries implications for interpreting performance in real-world high-pressure situations” (e.g., high stakes examines like GRE, SAT, medical boards)